GaspeeVirtual Archives
Was the Gaspee burned to protect slavery??

An op-ed battle from the Providence Journal, June, 2020

1:  It's time to rethink the Gaspee Affair

by Joey La Neve DeFrancesco
Providence Journal
, June 7, 2020

During the first week in June, Rhode Islanders usually gather for a weeklong celebration of the Gaspee Affair, culminating in the ritual burning of a model British ship. The festivities commemorate the anniversary of Colonial Rhode Islanders exploding the British vessel Gaspee in June 1772. Though little discussed outside New England, the Gaspee Affair was the first bloodshed between colonists and the British and led directly to events culminating in the Revolutionary War. Across our state, we universally remember the attack as a heroic strike against the tyrannical British.

It is, however, far past time that we reevaluate the Gaspee Affair in the context of the slave economy. The Rhode Islanders who burned the Gaspee were wealthy traders who had made fortunes in the business of slavery, and were furious with British incursions into their sordid industry. In this context, the Gaspee raid emerges not as a spark for freedom, but rather the self-interested violence of slave merchants protecting their economic and political power.

Rhode Island’s 18th-century economy was fully embedded in the business of slavery. Thousands of black and indigenous enslaved people labored within the colony itself, making up some 10% of the population. The colony first entrenched itself in the slave economy via the bilateral trade with the West Indies, shipping New England-produced goods to slave plantations in the Caribbean. By the 1720s, Rhode Islanders began directly transporting enslaved people from West Africa: merchants brought Rhode Island-distilled rum to the coast of west Africa, traded the spirits for enslaved people, then sold the enslaved people to West Indian sugar plantations for molasses to distill into more rum. So formed the notorious Triangle Trade. Rhode Islanders emerged as the most prominent North American slave traders, far exceeding other British colonies.

Following the end of the Seven Years War in 1763, Britain began more vigorously regulating colonists. The Sugar Act of 1764, for instance, sought to tax New Englanders’ rum trade with the West Indies. The taxes incensed Rhode Island’s elite, including Stephen Hopkins, who complained in his influential “Rights of the Colonies Examined” that the measures would destroy the Colonies’ economy: “Putting an end to the importation of foreign molasses at the same time puts an end to all the costly distilleries in these colonies, and to the rum trade to the coast of Africa.”

So as the Gaspee entered Rhode Island’s waters in 1772, Rhode Island’s ruling class was already furious with the British. The men who gathered to attack the Gaspee were not common people, but rather the colony’s powerful merchants and manufacturers such as John Brown, Simeon Potter and Joseph Tillinghast. Nearly all had a deep economic interest in preserving slavery, and many personally owned enslaved people.

Across the Colonies, the elite were anxious with imagined British interference in the slave economy. The very same month of the Gaspee attack, British courts handed down the Somerset decision, which effectively outlawed slavery within England. Combined with the Proclamation Line of 1763 and other events, colonists (incorrectly) fantasized that Britain was destabilizing the Colonies through gradual abolition.

After the Gaspee attack, the only witness who emerged to testify against the raiders was Aaron Briggs, a man of likely African and indigenous ancestry living as a coerced laborer on Prudence Island. The elite closed ranks and attempted to discredit Briggs with racist insults. The Rev. John Allen denounced him in his popular pamphlet “An Oration on the Beauties of Liberty,” bemoaning that the British were threatening colonists with being “confin’d and tried for [their] life by the accusation of a negro.”

In the context of Rhode Island’s historical economy, the material interests of the attackers, the larger role of slavery in inspiring Colonial rebellion, and the treatment of Aaron Briggs, we must reconsider our memory of the Gaspee Affair.

Joey La Neve DeFrancesco is a public historian, musician and organizer.


2:  Gaspee raid was not tied to slave trade

By Patrick T. Conley
Providence Journal
, June 13, 2020

Raiders from Providence and Bristol burned the British customs ship, Gaspee, on June 9 and 10, 1772, thereby striking America’s “first blow for freedom.” Now, as the 250th anniversary of that daring event has arrived, a modern Gaspee raider states that “It’s time to rethink the Gaspee Affair” (Journal, 6-8-2020). Joey La Neve DeFrancesco contends that such rethinking reveals that “the Gaspee raid emerges not as a spark for freedom but rather the self-interested violence of slave merchants protecting their economic and political power.”

He begins his anti-American diatribe with a statement about the 18th-century Rhode Island slave trade that is generally correct: “Rhode Islanders emerged as the most prominent North American slave traders, far exceeding other Colonies.” From there, his argument goes downhill.

Early philosophers exposed a logical and historical fallacy they described as “post hoc ergo propter hoc.” It simply holds that if an event followed a prior event, then the prior event was the cause. The author believes that because the Rhode Island slave trade preceded the Gaspee raid, it was, therefore, its cause. Actually, the anger that sparked the Gaspee raid had many and more important provocations. It was a response to a series of administrative, revenue and navigation acts imposed upon the Colonies from 1763 onward as part of an imperial reorganization following England’s costly victory over France in the Great War for Empire.

Rhode Island’s resentment in 1772 stemmed mainly from what Oliver Dickerson, authoritative historian of the navigation acts, calls “customs racketeering,” namely the harsh and draconian enforcement of the acts of trade by an independent board of customs commissioners who were given by statute (the Townshend Act of 1767) a percentage of the value of the Colonial ships and cargoes they seized.

Stephen Hopkins, cited for his opposition to the Sugar Act of 1764, a duty on imported molasses that was distilled into rum for the triangular slave trade, is misleading. The act was repealed by the Revenue Act of 1766, well before the Gaspee incident, and by far, the main theme of Hopkins’ “Rights of Colonies Examined” (1764) was not economic but constitutional. He referred to the broad rights of “Americans” and suggested a pioneering federal theory of empire, with Parliament legislating on matters of imperial concern — war, trade and international relations — but with Colonial assemblies possessing sovereignty in local affairs, including taxation.

Influenced by his Quaker beliefs and his own professions of liberty, Hopkins freed his slaves in 1773, and during the following year, while serving in the state legislature, he cosponsored a statute that prohibited the importation of “Negroes” to Rhode Island.

This statute was the first in a series of measures by which most Rhode Islanders attempted to atone for their cardinal sin of slave trading. The decades of the 1770s and 1780s could well be described locally as “the Era of Atonement.”

During this Revolutionary period, the state’s large and influential Quaker community led the attack on these twin evils of slavery and slave trading. In 1778, the General Assembly passed a wartime enlistment law proposed by Gen. James Mitchell Varnum, which stipulated that those slaves who enlisted in Rhode Island’s “colored regiment” would be granted freedom upon completion of their term of duty. A 1779 law forbade the sale of Rhode Island slaves outside the state without their consent.

The Emancipation Act of 1784, however, was the most significant of the several Revolution-inspired statutes relating to blacks. With a preface invoking the sentiments of English political theorist John Locke — namely, that “all men are entitled to life, liberty and property” — the gradual manumission measure gives freedom to all children born to slave mothers after March 1, 1784. It put slavery on the road to extinction.

In 1787, only five weeks following the adjournment of the Constitutional Convention, the General Assembly passed an act, initiated by influential and irrepressible Quakers, prohibiting any Rhode Island citizen from engaging in the slave trade. In vigorous language, this statute termed the nefarious traffic “inconsistent with justice, and the principles of humanity, as well as the laws of nature, and that more enlightened and civilized sense of freedom which has of late prevailed.” The proposed federal Constitution that gave temporary protection to this trade was not an instrument to be warmly embraced. Thus, the state’s antislavery contingent took refuge in antifederalism and, during the critical year 1790, this connection nearly thwarted ratification.

The slave trade provision of the Constitution provoked such opposition that an amendment (XVII) was specifically proposed and approved that exhorted Congress to ban the traffic immediately. Rhode Island was the only state to suggest such an amendment during the ratification struggle.

Let us view the Gaspee as an event occurring at the outset of this age of atonement and not as an effort to perpetuate an increasingly reprehensible economic activity.

The Gaspee critic made other assertions that are also unsound — the Somerset ruling, the Proclamation Line of 1763 and Aaron Briggs — but space does not permit rebuttal.

Suffice to say that the iconoclastic DeFrancesco, who lists himself as a “public historian, musician and community organizer,” as a historian, is off-key and disorganized.

Patrick T. Conley is Rhode Island’s historian laureate and the 1977 grand marshal of the Gaspee Days parade.


Pending musings:

3:  On the other hand

4: From

Back to Top    |    Back to Gaspee Virtual Archives
Originally Posted to Gaspee Virtual Archives 6/2020    Last Revised 6/2020    Slavery.htm